Linguistic Sesquicentenary: L.L. Zamenhof


Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto, was born on 15 December 1859, which means that Tuesday is his sesquicentenary.

(Incidentally, “sesquicentenary” deserves to be a Word of the Day one of these Days. OED tells me that it derives from the prefix “semi-” and the suffix “-que”: IOW “half-and,” or “half again as much.” The things I never knew . . . I always assumed that “sesqui-” things, like centennials and pedalians, were vaguely related to seqouias or Sasquatches or other large items. Serves me right for making stuff up instead of checking the dictionary to start with.)

In front of me as I write is a tiny green book that I acquired in 1971, a book that has somehow survived every upheaval in my life since I started high school. It is The ‘Edinburgh’ Esperanto Pocket Dictionary. The introduction, written in 1933, informs me that the dictionary is “suggestive—not exhaustive. It must, therefore, be used with intelligence.” In fact, Esperantists often associate themselves with intelligence, like MENSA members or baseball statheads. Nor is this an outmoded rhetoric. Esperanto’s official American website still prints a paragraph I got in a little flyer (since lost) with my dictionary back in ‘71. In the Esperanto analogue to “F U CN RD THS U CN BCM A SCY N GT A GD JB,” Esperanto-USA informs us that:

Inteligenta persono lernas la lingvon Esperanto rapide kaj facile. Esperanto estas la moderna, kultura lingvo por la tuta mondo. Simpla, fleksebla, belsona, ĝi estas la praktika solvo de la problemo de universala interkompreno. Esperanto meritas vian seriozan konsideron. Lernu la internacian lingvon Esperanto.

There’s no indication of how “rapide” or “facile” a “stulta persono” can learn Esperanto. But the implication is that enlightened individuals would naturally want to learn an artificial language that enables them to speak with . . . well, with any other enlightened person who has learned it too.

Quaint as Dr Zamenhof’s invention seems today, it had a lot more urgency in the 19th century. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, came of age in a period when vast multilingual empires spanned Eastern Europe, and contact between different cultures was frequently lethal. Peter Forster, in The Esperanto Movement (The Hague: Mouton, 1982) tells us that

He was impressed by the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, and at the age of ten wrote a five-act tragedy on this theme, with the scene set in Bialystok. (50)

Zamenhof was fluent in Russian, Polish, and German. He studied French, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and though he was not a native speaker of Yiddish, he certainly could understand that great lingua franca of Jewish Eastern Europe as well. With what Yiddish speakers would call “chutzpah,” he devised Esperanto at the age of 19 from a mix of Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and other Indo-European roots, and set about a life’s work promoting international use of the language.

Esperanto was never supposed to become the mother tongue of the whole world. In fact, Zamenhof and other Esperantists distrusted linguistic imperialism. They simply wanted Esperanto to become everybody’s second language. Cultural diversity would be preserved; but by sharing a medium of communication, the world’s diverse cultures would stop killing one another. Zamenhof wrote, in 1904:

Homaron Vi kreis perfekte kaj bele,
Sed ĝi sin dividis batale;
Popolo popolon atakas kruele,
Frat’ fraton atakas šakale.

Thou didst create humanity in perfect beauty,
But it divided itself in battle;
People attack people cruelly,
Brother attacks brother like a jackal. (Forster 85-86)

As a teenager, I studied my little Esperanto dictionary eagerly. (Linguistic geekdom FTW, as a later generation might remark.) I knew that Esperantists wore green star badges in their lapels to signify their membership in the brotherhood, but I never saw any such badge. And I never acquired any other books in Esperanto, limiting my Esperantist efforts to word-by-word translation of a few English sentences, breaking my brain in an attempt to figure out how the ubiquitous “j” after vowels was supposed to be pronounced. (I still can’t say for sure, though I suppose it makes vowels into diphthongs.)

Somewhere, there must have been better-organized budding Esperantists than I, because the language seems to be alive and well. The Web is crawling with Esperanto materials. Not least is the Esperanto Wikipedia, where you can look up such subjects as Okulo, the eye (Zamenhof’s day job was as an ophthalmologist), and in fact Zamenhof himself.

Zamenhof died in 1917, in the midst of a war that seemed a cruel mockery of his hopes for world peace. 150 years after his birth, his vision of a universal second language has more-or-less come to pass, though not as he dreamt. Today, when two speakers of disparate languages meet, they immediately try to converse not in Esperanto but in English. As often as not, they succeed. We live in a world governed less by the Pax Americana than by the Pax Coca-Cola, perhaps. But having an international language of first resort has made the world a smaller, and arguably a much safer, place than Zamenhof knew.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 11th, 2009 |No Comments »

Thanksgiving Poem


This is Thanksgiving Week — and what better than a poem that inspires the deepest gratitude? This is one of my favorite poems and certainly a poem of thanksgiving, but it describes a very simple, quiet, solitary day — a day very unlike the busy, noisy, bustling one that most of us will be having this Thursday. Yet, in the midst of the feast, between football games or puzzles, during all the tumult of laughter and conversation, take a minute to remember that it could have been otherwise.

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on November 22nd, 2009 |No Comments »

Lyric Centenary: Johnny Mercer


The “American songbook,” music written in the half-century 1920-1970 for Broadway, radio, and Hollywood, is dominated by composers: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael. The lyricists who wrote the words for their songs were brilliant too, but are usually granted a smaller helping of fame. Ira Gerswhin excelled at ringing changes on vernacular phrases; Lorenz Hart was the master of impossible rhymes about unrequited love; E.Y. Harburg was deft and whimsical; Oscar Hammerstein II preferred a full assault on the tear ducts. But to enter the pantheon, a lyricist was best-advised to write his own songs, as Berlin and Porter did.

The exception is Johnny Mercer. Mercer was born 18 November 1909, making next Wednesday his centenary. Mercer was the ultimate hired-gun lyricist, writing a spectacular portfolio of standards with the great unattached composers of his day. His 19 Academy Award nominations were shared with eight different composers: Harry Warren, Artie Shaw, Jimmy McHugh, Arlen, Carmichael, Henry Mancini, Marvin Hamlisch, and himself. Sources differ on how many #1 pop hits Mercer wrote, but it’s somewhere between 14 and 20 – sometimes with Mercer himself as vocalist. All of Ella Fitzgerald’s priceless “Songbook” albums feature the work of a single composer (Kern, Ellington, Porter, e.g.) except one: the Johnny Mercer songbook. A Mercer song, alone in the world of jazz standards, is identified with its lyricist, not its composer.

Several of Mercer’s greatest hits are novelty songs: “Jeepers Creepers,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive.” Mercer is often rightly identified with wonderful high-energy nonsense like “Glow-Worm”:

Glow, little glow-worm, fly of fire,
Glow like an incandescent wire,
Glow for the female of the specie,
Turn on the AC and the DC.

But his biggest novelty song, a #1 hit and Oscar-winner, shows how readily Mercer could shift into a key of sheer wonder. There are few moments in movie musicals more gorgeous than hearing Judy Garland arrive on “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (composed by Warren):

Back in Ohio where I come from,
I’ve done a lot of dreaming and I’ve traveled some;
But I never thought I’d see the day
When I ever took a ride on the Santa Fe.

Mercer was in love with Garland, which put him in less than exclusive company in the Hollywood of the 1940s. Their brief affair resulted in unforgettable songs, though: “In the Valley Where the Evening Sun Goes Down”, “I Remember You,” and “That Old Black Magic.” Bittersweet, haunting infatuations were Mercer’s stock in trade: “Laura,” “Fools Rush In,” “I Want to Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces),” “Day In, Day Out,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “One For My Baby” (composed by Arlen):

I got the routine
So drop another nickel in the machine.
I’m feeling so bad,
I wish you’d make the music dreamy and sad.
I could tell you a lot, but you’ve gotta be true to your code.
Make it one for my baby,
And one more for the road.

But he also captured the most difficult thing to put into verse, the complete certainty of love. “You Grow Sweeter as the Years Go By” (composer Johnny Mercer):

Though September takes the place of June,
In September there’s a harvest moon.
Let the leaves start falling, darling,
What care I,
When you grow sweeter as the years go by.

Mercer was unusually successful as a translator of European lyrics, as in “Autumn Leaves,” “Summer Wind,” and in fact “Glow-Worm,” which he liberally adapted from Paul Lincke’s 1902 operetta number “Glühwürmchen.” Mercer wrote “Blues in the Night,” “Mandy Is Two,” “My Shining Hour,” “Travelin’ Light,” “I Thought about You,” “And the Angels Sing,” “Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the magnificent “Skylark,” and the incomparable “Too Marvelous for Words.” Much too marvelous, in a lyric that throws the attention back onto Richard Whiting’s music:

You’re much too much,
And just too very, very
To ever be
In Webster’s Dictionary.

And so I’m borrowing
A love song from the birds
To tell you that you’re marvelous,
Too marvelous for words.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on November 13th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Literary Triskaidekadecennary: Wallace Stevens


American poet Wallace Stevens was born on 2 October 1879, which makes today his triskaidekadecennary. (Before you reach for your dictionary, I just made that word up. As a triskaidekaphile, I think there should be a lot more words for multiples of thirteen.)

Because he was born 130 years ago, not 65 years ago, Stevens never held an academic job in creative writing. While writing the most distinguished poetry of his generation, he had a a day job. His day job was “insurance lawyer.” His specialty was bonding – not the kind of bonding you do with the kids over BBQ and touch football, but the bonding that contractors do to make sure they pay attention to their contract. Stevens had the legal skills and the Sitzfleisch to rise to the top, becoming a vice president at The Hartford.

During business hours at The Hartford, Stevens was just Wally from the home office. But on his lunch hour, he would compose poems in his head. He’d have them typed, then slip them into a desk drawer. Other times, he’d think of titles for poems, much as you or I might think of names for garage bands. He’d slip the titles into another drawer. When the time came, he would grab a poem from one drawer and a title from the other. This helps explain why Stevens’s poems have titles like “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs” and “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade.”

His most famous poem is called, for no apparent reason, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” It is about growing old, though Stevens was just a lad of 39 when it was published. Stevens thought in pictures and phrases, with no explanations attached:

The measure of the intensity of love
Is measure, also, of the verve of earth.
For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
Ticks tediously the time of one more year.
And you? Remember how the crickets came
Out of their mother grass, like little kin,
In the pale nights, when your first imagery
Found inklings of your bond to all that dust.

He had a persistent theme: why be a poet if you’re on a one-way journey toward death? “A Postcard from the Volcano”:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill.

Later he would say (of his own poems, perhaps):

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

“The Planet on the Table”

That’s why be a poet. Life, the universe, and everything.

In those days, you didn’t need a college degree to be admitted to the bar, and Stevens never earned a B.A. He studied at Harvard for three years, dropping out in 1900 when his family ran out of money. 110 years later, Wallace Stevens would be an attrition statistic. But Harvard was more concerned with educating whole people than meeting statistical benchmarks. His professors introduced him to literature, and Stevens began to write poetry at Harvard.

Nowadays, emerging research universities are tempted to remove the liberal-arts core from a college education. Meanwhile, “fast-track” degree plans strip away everything but the minimum of courses needed for degree production. But what if Wallace Stevens hadn’t taken literature at Harvard? What if his father had said, “I’m paying for pre-law, not for poetry! Get on the fast track and produce that degree!”

We can’t immediately measure the benefit of literature for college students. Some college administrators seem to think that literature is only in the curriculum to slow down business majors. But a literary education didn’t seem to hurt Wallace Stevens in the business world. And if you never study literature at all, what are your chances of growing old, rich both financially and intellectually?

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 2nd, 2009 |3 Comments »

Literary Tercentenary: Samuel Johnson


18 September 2009 is the birthday of English Matters, the weblog of the University of Texas at Arlington English Department. It is also the 300th birthday of Samuel Johnson. There couldn’t be a better day to start a blog devoted to the English language and everything one can make of it.

Samuel Johnson was a poet, journalist, essayist, playwright, fiction writer, biographer, conversationalist, editor, critic, raconteur, wit, devotional writer – and his most famous achievement was in none of these fields.

Dr. Johnson wrote The Dictionary of the English Language. It wasn’t the first word-list in English, nor the best-selling, nor the most exhaustive. But it defined the idea of a dictionary for centuries afterwards: a book, as Alan Alda remarked, that’s “got all the other books in it.” Johnson’s dictionary was written with style and elegance, with humanism and good judgment; with endlessly quotable definitions: and it was written by Samuel Johnson alone. The great reference work of the 21st century, Wikipedia, is written by thousands of anonymous collaborators. The great reference work of the 18th century was written by one man in longhand. The only feature common to both is that they were fueled by lots and lots of coffee.

Astonishingly, Johnson’s Dictionary is not available on-line. It is probably the last public-domain text to resist digitization. But James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the great repository of Johnson’s conversation, is on line. So is Dr. Johnson’s tragedy Irene. Johnson’s delightful intellectual fantasy Rasselas (a sort of English answer to Voltaire’s Candide) is on line. Johnson’s austere and noble poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is on line. His extraordinary collection of anecdotes and critical commentaries on his predecessors in English verse, the Lives of the Poets, is on-line. For good measure, Johnson produced an edition of Shakespeare, and while the whole thing is not on line, large sections of the prefaces are.

Dr. Johnson was the most quotable writer in the English language, perhaps ever. He was the precursor to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Steven Colbert: the great-grandfather of snark. But rather than take up my entire inaugural post with great quotes, I will cite just two.

The first concerns an error in the Dictionary. Johnson had defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse,” which apparently it’s not. When a reader called him on his mistake and asked why he’d made it, Johnson replied, “Ignorance, madam, sheer ignorance.”

The other is my favorite passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It’s in Chapter 21.

On Saturday, July 30 [1763], Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

We hear a lot these days about motives for education: credentials, job skills, a stronger economy, “excellence.” To defend and promote what we do as teachers and students of English, we have to talk the talk of active learning initiatives, continuous quality enhancement, measurable outcomes.

But Dr. Johnson is talking about something different. “Desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind.” Not desire of learning outcomes, still less of credentials, still less of amassing credits via the most convenient delivery system – but of knowledge actually worth giving what you have. We should keep Dr. Johnson’s boatman in mind. Who knows? We might get a double fare.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on September 18th, 2009 |4 Comments »